No Other Gospel

By Carl Braaten

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matt. 28:18-20).

We are living in an ecumenical age. Some churches that have been long separated are merging with each other. The quest for Christian unity has been gathering momentum ever since the Second Vatican Council. In the words or Matthew Arnold, we are living between two worlds, the dying of one and awaiting the birth of a new.

As we merge our various ethnic traditions, we confess we harbor mixed emotions. We are saying goodbye to our cozy corners and warm huddles. We have come a long way from our village experience in Lake Wobegon, where we all belonged to a church with people of our own kith and kin.

I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained in the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America. All the pastors knew each other, having graduated from the same seminary in St. Paul. Swedes, Finns, Danes, Germans, Scots, Brits, for example, all went to churches of their own kind. Ecumenism means the basket is upset, and we find ourselves commingling with Blacks, Hispanics, Vietnamese, Orientals, and North American Indians, like never before. That is called grassroots ecumenism, no longer simply church leaders and theologians meeting in inter-confessional dialogue to find common ground on matters of faith and doctrine.

A Deadly Dilemma

After World War II we experienced a tremendous expansion of Christianity in America. Professor Kenneth Scott Latourette of Yale University wrote in his monumental History of the Expansion of Christianity: “In 1944 Christianity was affecting more deeply more nations and cultures than ever before. … In 1944 Christianity was molding the religious life of mankind as never before. … Never has Jesus been so widely potent in shaping world history as in 1944.”

Not many historians would write like that today. The fact is that the steeple casts its shadow over less and less of the Western Hemisphere. The arts have lost their Christian inspiration; Christian morality has been eroded; and many of Europe’s great cathedrals are filled with empty pews and function more as museums.

In America, religion has become a consumer product, a leisure-time activity, appealing more and more to the impulses of the flesh than of the Spirit. It goes in for cheap ecstasy and instant gratification. The Saturday newspaper carries ads for Sunday services touting entertainment, uplifting singing, and exciting bands. You are invited to get away from the muggy conditions and worship in an air-conditioned sanctuary. Another will advertise that you can worship in your car, or bring a lawn chair for Saturday-evening services in the park.

A lot of religious razzmatazz is giving Christianity a bad report. The question we face is: where are we heading? We face a deadly dilemma. The sociologist of religion Peter Berger said that the Church has two main options: accommodation or retreat. We can find our niche in America in one of two ways: by becoming relevant to what is going on in the world and losing our distinctiveness, or retreating into the past and losing our relevance. That is an unacceptable choice.

We can do it like the liberals and say Gesundheit every time the world sneezes. That means to blend into the world and join the passing parade of fads and fancies. This has become a dominant trend in mainline Protestant Christianity. Make some easy alliances with the trends of the time. Some do it to the right and others to the left; either way, the world sets the agenda and calls the shots.

Or we can do it like some conservatives who wrap themselves in the nationalist traditions of the past, like the Scribes and Pharisees of old. They have a siege mentality, building strong defenses against the rising tide of new challenges. For some of us, our temptation is to swim back into our safe denominational fjords.

American Christianity has always been hung up on this deadly dilemma between modernists and fundamentalists, liberals and conservatives. The ecumenical movement is giving us a different option. Evangelicals are discovering forgotten treasures in the great pre-Reformation catholic tradition, and Catholics are finding strengths that evangelicals bring to the table. Thus we may become evangelical catholics in a post-denominational age, confessors of the living voice of the gospel in our liturgical assemblies, bearing the cross of Christ on the frontline of our missional encounters with the world here and abroad.

Two Instructions of Jesus

We have the onerous task of escaping the deadly dilemma we have described. We can do it best by opening our minds to the mandate of our Lord to the Church. We have two great instructions from Jesus, both of which we must keep together. The first is the Great Commission of our Lord.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-19).

That is the evangelistic instruction that Jesus gave to his apostles. Go, teach, and baptize. Preach the gospel, make disciples, and reach out to all the nations in the name of the Holy Trinity.

The second instruction of Jesus is the Great Commandment, in two parts:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37).

By holding the Great Commission and the Great Commandment together, we will avoid the sin of separating our godward faith and our neighborly love, of separating our world of experience into public and private segments, leaving our church artificially grounded on the private shoreline. The public sphere then drifts off on its own course, and the private sphere appeals only to the habits of our hearts.

Churches today are engaged in a struggle to maintain the double thrust of evangelization — making new Christians — and faithful social witness and action. Sometimes it seems as though the Church is made up of two types of Christians — those who believe in doing good works to help our neighbors improve their lives and those who believe in saving souls to avoid damnation — as though the lordship of Jesus covers only half of this world, the half that concerns the private self, the interior life, and eternal destiny, as though the lordship of Jesus does not cover the other half, the half that concerns the body, the public sphere, and our everyday, secular responsibilities.

A recent exchange of letters took place between a bishop and a seminary professor that was made public. They are very instructive and timely, epitomizing the dilemma we are facing — how to be faithful to Christ and his gospel, while as citizens to choose how to deal with the struggles and conflicts of peoples and ideologies in our time.

The seminary professor wrote a letter to the bishop accusing him of using the prestige of his office to promote his political opinions on current affairs, and of elevating the penultimate issues of politics at the expense of the ultimate issues to which his office ought to attend. In other words, stick to your church business and don’t take a side on controversial social and political matters.

The bishop answered that he believed it was wrong to separate the ultimate and penultimate concerns, that the church and its leaders must not remain silent concerning the moral issues confronting the human community. Did not Christians remain all too silent during the abomination of slavery? Did not both Protestant and Catholic bishops remain silent and look the other way during Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany and its mistreatment of Jews? The exchange of letters is a sign of the polarization between left and right not only in our public life but also among churches and Christians.

The Open Door

Our Lord speaks: “Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (Rev. 3:8). To address the challenges posed by our cultural and religious context, let us walk together through the open door. It is a narrow door opening to us.

Let us walk in the footsteps of the faithful witnesses of Christ who have gone before us. Let us go with the gospel, as the apostle Paul defines it for us. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

We are called to center the Church in that gospel truth. John F. Kennedy captured the imagination of the American electorate with his campaign slogan of “Let us get America moving again.” Similarly, let us get our confessing movement of the gospel going again. Emerging from our ethnic captivities, we have become open to many new things, like the ecumenical movement, the liturgical renaissance, the historical-critical method, and various liberation theologies. Without endorsing everything associated with these movements, we have learned a lot from them. We thank God for all the gifts from traditions other than ours, to enrich our experience, to expand our horizons, and to help us to act more constructively.

It may also be true that our passion for the gospel needs to be rekindled. Of all the things the Spirit of God spoke to the seven churches in Asia in the Book of Revelation, the one that I dread most to hear is what the Spirit said to the church in Laodicea: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).

These are frightening words of judgment, placing us under the full weight of God’s law. They tell us to preach the gospel with clarity and conviction, with no compromise, in all its depth and fullness. “And if the bugle gives an uncertain sound,” said St. Paul, “who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor. 14: 8). They tell us to preach the message with authority, lest we suffer what the prophet Amos called “of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).

The one who threatens to spit the lukewarm Church out of his mouth adds this: “I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:19-20).

The Rev. Dr. Carl E. Braaten is professor of systematic theology, emeritus, at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.


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